The Chicago area is the nation's busiest railroad terminal, handling more than 37,500 cars a day. That number is expected to almost double to 67,000 cars by 2020, fueled by a surge in Asian imports from West Coast ports headed inland and shippers looking to avoid the high fuel costs associated with trucking.
The additional activity is being squeezed into a 2,796-mile track network loaded with choke points and creaky, outdated infrastructure. In Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side, for example, dozens of trains grind to a halt daily as a railroad worker manually throws levers to switch tracks where seven sets of tracks converge.
The meager handout means freight delays, chronically blocked street crossings and inefficient commuter rail service on some routes will persist for years to come in the nation's busiest rail hub.
"It was a big surprise," says Merrill Travis, a Chicago Department of Transportation consultant on the project. "You hate to spit in the eye of $100 million, but it's lower than our worst-case scenario."